By Dr. Leslie Ross D.V.M. B.Sc.
The dose makes the poison
Tea Tree oil is an essential oil that is commonly found in many home cabinets. It is valued for its use in humans and animals as a home remedy for a variety of skin and respiratory conditions.
It can be purchased from many Big Box stores, pharmacies and pet stores in a wide range of concentrations as an over-the-counter medication in a variety of formulations including shampoos, sprays , soaps and bottled oils.
Not uncommonly, well-meaning pet owners sometimes reach for this plant-based, pungent essential oil as a home remedy to treat their pet’s ear or skin problems that appear to be of a minor nature. In animals, Tea Tree Oil has been marketed as an animal flea and lice shampoo, antiseptic, fungicidal agent and anti- allergy product.
Unfortunately, most pet owners are often unaware of the significant potential for toxic effects of Tea Tree Oil on pets. These toxic effects are dependent on the quality, quantity and concentration of the product.
Cats, especially young thin ones, are particularly sensitive to the negative effects of Tea Tree Oil; however, it can be toxic to any species of animal depending on the dose absorbed.
Commercially, Tea Tree Oil is present at concentrations as little as < 1%, but up to 100% products are available. 100% Tea Tree Oil in dogs or cats can commonly cause serious signs of gastro-intestinal upset and nervous system depression, uncoordination, hind limb paralysis and tremors within hours after exposure and lasting up to 3 days. Liver failure has also been correlated with its use and even death.
Pets with damaged skin will absorb the oil faster and pets that self-groom (a common habit for most cats), are at higher risk of toxic reactions.
Mankind has used tea tree oil for centuries. It certainly can exert beneficial effects on a variety of skin are respiratory conditions. However, before a well-meaning pet owner reaches for this remedy it is very wise for them to consult with their chosen veterinarian first to ensure that it will be safe to give to their beloved companion rather than causing them harm.
“The dose makes the poison” is a very wisely stated adage credited to Paracelsus, a Renaissance age physician, who founded the discipline of toxicology.
It is very prudent to keep this adage in mind when considering any kind of home remedy. “Natural products” are not necessarily unable to cause harm just because they are from ingredients of natural origin.